Control Nathan Rabin: Purple People Eater
My three year old son Declan adores music, and I love exposing my little dude to the music that gave me joy as a child. It’s no exaggeration to say that in the last month or so, I have probably listened to the theme song to the 1960s “Spider-Man” cartoon over a thousand times, both in the original version, Michael Buble’s cover and The Ramones’ kick-ass version for the 1995 compilation Saturday Morning: Cartoon’s Greatest Hits. Let me tell you, it sure did make my heart soar to see Declan enraptured by The Ramones’ take on one of his favorite songs about probably his favorite hero.
I was equally overjoyed when my son became obsessed with “Monster Mash”, and, to a much lesser extent, the original Ghostbusters theme song. So when I discovered that Monster Mash is also a motion picture written by two of the screenwriters of Toy Story, I knew I had to include it in Control Nathan Rabin, the column where the living saints who contribute to this site’s Patreon page, and make this Happy Place possible in the first place, have a choice between two films I must watch and then write about.
And since I’m all about finding complementary competitors for Control Nathan Rabin, I gave patrons a chance to choose between either the Monster Mash movie or another low-budget horror-comedy exploitation movie based on a classic novelty song in the form of 1988’s Purple People Eater, a loose adaptation of Sheb Wooley that gave star Neil Patrick Harris one of his earliest and worst roles, and not just because he shares the screen with both what appears to be a little person in a store-bought purple monster costume and a young Dustin Diamond.
I was kind of rooting for Monster Mash, so I could potentially watch it with Declan (assuming my wife didn’t deem it “too scary” for him) but you beautiful sadists instead chose Purple People Eater, a movie that sets out to be a rock and roll version of E.T but instead suggests what might happen if someone were to cross-pollinate Mac & Me with Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, but with a perverse, unrelenting emphasis on the ravages of old age.
As a motion picture for children, Purple People Eater is a proposition about as curious as, well, a one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater. The movie begins in a jarringly off way, with ecstatic children leaping into the sky, presumably after bouncing on a trampoline while a song plays in the background.
That song? Not “Purple People Eater”, perversely enough. No, that would be too easy and make too much sense. No, instead, Purple People Eater begins with a song hearkening back to the carefree pop culture of the 1950s and pre-Beatles 1960s, only this time it’s not a Sheb Wooley joint at all but Chubby Checker singing about the Twist.
Ah, but Checker isn’t singing the actual “Twist.” Instead, it’s a Mexican, non-union equivalent of “The Twist” called “Twist it Up”, from the songwriting team of Mann and Appel, whose hits include “Let’s Twist Again” and “Let’s Limbo Some More.” Instead of opening on a goofy, irreverent, kid-friendly note, this odd opening substitutes something that’s weird and ethereal and seemingly targeted more at pedophiles than kids themselves.
The action kicks off when the parents of Neil Patrick Harris’ shy, animal-loving loner Billy Johnson go off on an extended vacation, leaving him in the care of his grandpa (multiple Academy Award nominee and legendary character actor Ned Beatty). Grandpa is, like most old people, grimly waiting for the sweet release of the grave. Then Billy starts hanging out with him, and he regains his lust for life.
They paint the apartment where Grandpa lives with fellow sad old person Rita (Shelley Winters, in a role that probably did not challenge her as much as working with Stanley Kubrick did) and when Grandpa gets a little blue paint in his hair, his grandson assures him that the look is “very punk.”
Purple People Eater adorably invokes “punk” several more times in a way that betrays that it has no idea what the word actually means. Of course, the riotous, rebellious energy of early rock and rockabilly anticipated and paved the way for punk. In that respect, Frank Tashlin’s raucous 1956 satire The Girl Can’t Help It (with a theme song by Little Richard, who plays the Mayor here) is about as punk as cinema gets, even if it was released decades before the emergence of The Clash and the Sex Pistols. That, however, is not the version of punk you find here. No, the "punk" in Purple People Eater is unique to this particular motion picture.
Then one day something unusual happens. Billy is listening to some beloved 45s of classic rock and roll and a one-eyed, one-horned flying purple people eater swoops in from outer space to play what sounds like an extended saxophone solo on his musical horn. I was astonished to discover that “Purple”, the title character, was “fabricated” by the legendary Chiodo Brothers, whose resume includes stuff like Critters, Killer Klowns From Outer Space and The Simpsons, because the character looks for all the world like a little person stunt man inside a store-bought purple monster Halloween costume.
Purple looks like trash but he’s just as awful, personality-wise. When Purple sees Billy playing an instrument, he admonishes him, “You play with your hands? Play with your heart, like this.” What a condescending fuck!
E.T took great pains to hide its titular space alien from the prying, judging eyes of the public except on Halloween, when weird, freaky sights are commonplace. Purple People Eater is too lazy for that. The first time Purple gets freaky with the horn in public it’s at a mall where there are other costumed characters around to make Purple seem less conspicuous.
But after that, the movie makes no attempt to conceal Purple from the public. The public, you see, looks at this purple monster from outer space and assumes that it’s just a kid in an unusually elaborate costume, like a more hirsute, eccentric version of former Guns N Roses guitarist Buckethead.
Can anyone conclusively say that underneath that KFC Bucket, Buckethead isn’t a bona fide space alien? What about the Daft Punk dudes? How do we know that under those cool helmets there aren’t crazy, space alien lizard-heads? Because Purple People Eater establishes that sometimes a rock and roller seems outrageous and exotic because they’re true artists and sometimes they seem outrageous and exotic because they’re actually space aliens.
Purple quickly becomes a neighborhood celebrity because who doesn’t love watching children perform rock and roll oldies with what’s either a space alien or a weirdo in a get-up he never takes off? At one point Chubby Checker, once again playing himself, performs with the kiddie band because, hey, a gig’s a gig, and Chubby Checker can’t help it if Chubby Checker is so goddamn charismatic that even a movie based on somebody else’s song somehow also feels like a sloppy, lazy, incoherent Chubby Checker vehicle.
Purple People Eater inherits its title character and his salient traits from the song that inspired it. This leaves it without a villain, however. The expected route would be to have the government look for Purple, or possibly pit Purple against alien bounty hunters. That would make entirely too much sense, however, so the bad guy in Purple People Eater is—and I hope you’re sitting down and prepared to handle this level of excitement—a greedy landlord.
How is that possible? Well, as I wrote earlier, Purple People Eater is partially a singularly terrible E.T knock-off about the unlikely friendship that develops between a wide-eyed boy and a creature from another world and partially a perversely depressing drama about mortality and old people contemplating their imminent deaths.
Grandpa gets his lust for life back when he starts palling around with his grandson and his unusual, excessively furry horn-playing pal. Grandpa’s pal Rita (Shelley Winters) is nowhere near as fortunate, however. She’s so terrified by her evil landlord Mr. Noodle’s plan to evict her from her longtime home so that he can build lucrative new condos that she’s lost her will to live and seems intent on starving herself to death.
Late in the film, our overwhelmed hero asks his babysitter, “Grandpa. What’s it like to die?” in regards to Rita and her suicidal depression. This is a scene and a conversation that Neil Patrick Harris, a precociously gifted performer who gives a much better performance than the film deserves, and acting legend Ned Beatty can definitely handle. But not in fucking Purple People Eater. This should be a fun movie for children, not a sad movie for grown-ups about some ancient folks trying to enjoy a larf or two before they die.
As in the break-dancing exploitation movies it sometimes resembles, Purple People Eater centers on a climactic show designed to protect vulnerable souls from the greed of real estate scoundrels. Only instead of winning the big talent show to save the teen rec center, Billy, Purple and the band throw an SOS “Save our Seniors” benefit concert to keep the nearly dead in their midst from being evicted from their homes.
Mr. Noodle kidnaps Purple and takes him to a scuzzy, abandoned bar and ties him to a pool table in a scene that I’m sure isn’t supposed to remind audiences of the rape scene in The Accused but I could think of nothing else. Eventually Purple escapes and heads to the show, where a Mayor played by Little Richard forbids evicting senior citizens in what is clearly a grievous case of governmental overstepping. I mean, I don’t want to see old people evicted by a cartoonishly evil landlord either, but an elected official can’t go all Deus Ex Machina and just decree that it’s illegal to kick old people out of their homes no matter what.
Purple People Eater makes audiences wait nearly 90 fucking minutes for the sing-along rendition of its title song it should have gotten out of the way in the first five minutes. I waited the whole fucking abysmal movie to hear a lousy rendition of a terrible novelty song. Then various characters in the film, including those played by Shelley Winters and Ned Beatty and oppressively adorable, painfully precocious tots, take turns talk-mumbling-kinda-singing-kinda-grumbling “Purple People Eater” and I found myself wishing they had the courage and audacity to make a “Purple People Eater” that contains multiple snippets of “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “Rockin’ Robin” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” but eschews a full-on production number set to “Purple People Eater.”
Honestly, I was just grateful the fucking thing was over, but I would think a lot more of Purple People Eater if they pulled a Mac & Me and ended with a title card promising that Purple would return in Purple People Eater 2: Purple Rain. Alas, Purple People Eater is incompetent and shameless, but not quite to that degree. Oh well. In this case, one is definitely more than enough. It's almost as if they shouldn't have made an entire movie based on a dumb novelty ditty in the first place.
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